Hunger-striking Inuk sculptor: 'If I have to die for Muskrat Falls, I'm willing to'

Ready to die. Inuk sculptor Billy Gauthier goes on a hunger strike to try to stop the flooding at the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in Labrador.
North Spur Dam site - Muskrat Falls / Billy Gauthier (CBC / Billy Gauthier)
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Protests against plans to flood a reservoir at the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric site have been raging across Newfoundland and Labrador.

Some protesters who had been arrested were released and are now facing charges. But they say they will not stop until the company, Nalcor Energy, changes its plans. Many protesters believe the flooding will cause methylmercury poisoning.

Among them is renowned Inuk sculptor Billy Gauthier from nearby North West River. He is on a hunger strike across the road from the planned flooding site, where protesters have been gathering.

 "Somebody had to do something. I realize now that there's not enough people that cared about us and that this project could poison us."- Billy Gauthier, Inuk sculptor

Gauthier tells As It Happens host Carol Off that among those arrested was a young woman who had just witnessed her father getting taken away by police.

BILLY GAUTHIER: She got emotional. She's not a robot. It hurt. So she did have some words, but she didn't make any threats whatsoever to any of the officers. She was just saying it was wrong and that [her father] was just doing what he knew was right to protect his family. She was quite loud, but the police officer had no right ... We're allowed to cry. We're aloud to cry out loud. But the police officer just grabbed her. They held her down to the ground and then started dragging her away. And this all happened while her mother and young brother were watching and both crying. It was heartbreaking.

CAROL OFF: What is it that you want the company, Nalco Energy, to do?

BG: To remove the organic materials in the proposed reservoir. So that they don't break-down and turn into methylmercury and then flow down through the river into Lake Melville and, basically, poison our ecosystem. We know, without a doubt, that it will break down into methylmercury. We have studies by Harvard researchers who are among the most qualified in the world.

My mother tried to convince me not to do it in the beginning. Because she loves me. But luckily she raised me the right way. And that is to stand up for what's right.- Billy Gauthier

CO: Nalcor Energy says that they have science that says this is not going to happen. That they can safely flood this area and that methylmercury will not contaminate the water.

BG: Yes. They have their own science, which is fictitious. They have so much money and we're not a big enough group of people. The world needs to know it's wrong. They're poisoning us. It's not right.

"Windswept Inuk" by Billy Gauthier (Spirit Wrestler Gallery)

CO: And that's why you decided to go with a hunger strike?

BG: And that's why I have to go with a hunger strike. Somebody had to do something. I realize now that there's not enough people that cared about us and that this project could poison us . . . because it's going to happen slowly. And, all of a sudden, it hit me. You know I could do a hunger strike and prove how dangerous this here is . . . because I'll be the first casualty.

CO: When you say "casualty," do you think that you would . . . 

BG: Die? Yes. Look, this is a multi-billion dollar project and we're only asking for a small percent added to the budget in order to make our water clean. But they're refusing it. They're saying no.

Billy Gauthier on a hunt at Lake Melville, Labrador (Billy Gauthier)

CO: How has your family responded to your hunger strike?

BG: My mother tried to convince me not to do it in the beginning. Because she loves me. But luckily she raised me the right way. And that is to stand up for what's right. And this is right.

CO: What about your daughter?

BG: My daughter? That was the hardest phone call I ever made in my life. When I told her, I said, 'I'm going to do a hunger strike. I can't stand by and let Nalcor poison our people. So I'm refusing to eat until they make things right.' And she said, 'Dad, aren't you scared?' And I said, 'Yes, I am scared, but that's what bravery is. When you're scared and you do it anyway.'

"Journey Through The Spirit World" by Billy Gauthier (Spirit Wrestler Gallery)

CO: If the water were poisoned with methylmercury, how many people would suffer from that?

BG: Many. I can tell you the communities are Goose Bay -- which is the largest community. There's also North West River, where I live. There's Rigolet and Mud Lake as well. We all use that body of water. Lake Melville is an amazing body of water and it's very abundant with fish. It's the reason why I live here in Labrador.

CO: This flooding could start anytime. What will you do?

BG: I won't give up. Because if I have to die for this, I'm willing to. In the past my ancestors . . . whenever there was a shortage of food or a severe problem within the group and somebody had to give up their life by staying behind, they did it. So I'm not unique in my culture at all. This is still my culture and my right to give up my life for my people. 

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